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Fourth Line Given Heavy Defensive Starts

The regulars on the fourth line for the New Jersey Devils have some of worst offensive zone start percentages in the entire NHL among all forwards. The Devils coaching staff relies on them heavily to defend and get the puck up ice. However, they have not been overly successful at this.

Tampa Bay Lightning v New Jersey Devils Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The fourth line in the NHL can often be considered a “checking line” or an energy line: one to bring some life back into the team, but perhaps one not expected to show finesse, especially in the offensive zone. For the New Jersey Devils, that has basically been true this season. When looking over the course of the entire season, the fourth line that has spent the most time together for NJ has been the trio of John Hayden, Kevin Rooney, and Miles Wood. They have been on the ice for 2.6% of the Devils’ season, which is 9th most on the team this year.

More recently, if you want to just look at the last 10 games (last night not included), you will still find Hayden and Rooney cemented into the fourth line center and right wing positions respectively. The left wing, however, has shifted between Michael McLeod and Joey Anderson. The line with McLeod has been out there for 6.8% of the team’s ice time over the last 10 games, and the line with Anderson has been out there 4.9%. Those rank 4th and 5th most among lines during that time frame.

So in reality, the fourth line has been somewhat consistent this season. At least, two of those players, in Hayden and Rooney, have mostly been the regulars on the fourth line. Miles Wood has been given a promotion, as all of the selling the team did created holes that needed to be filled, but he also spent a lot of time with the other two. At this point, that third spot is being taken by a young call up getting some much needed NHL experience.

Why I bring this up is that given the regulars on that line, in Hayden and Rooney, it is evident that Alaine Nasreddine and Co. also have that line envisioned as an energy line that, ideally, is playing tough hockey, grinding out hits and board play, and is looking to get the puck up ice. Given the overall talent on this team, or the fact that offensively, there is a definite dearth of scoring capabilities, that makes sense. And, some numbers back that up. I took a look at 5v5 offensive zone faceoff percentages for all forwards in the NHL with at least 200 minutes a 5 on 5 play. Before last night, here is where the fourth line Devils ranked, specifically Hayden, Rooney, and Wood (Anderson and McLeod do not have 200 minutes yet), thanks to Natural Stat Trick. Note: there were 423 forwards on the list.

So out of 423 forwards this year who have played 200 or more 5v5 minutes, both Rooney and Hayden are in the bottom 25 in offensive zone faceoff percentage, and Wood is not far behind. I also included Joey Anderson and Michael McLeod in there, as their numbers add to the argument. Anderson’s OZFO% is actually worse than Miles Wood, but he did not qualify for the NHL ranks there, as he only has 158 minutes a 5 on 5 action. McLeod, the other player who has had a lot of 4th line minutes, especially recently, has an even lower OZFO% sitting at 29.79%, much closer to Rooney and Hayden than Wood and Anderson. He’s done this in just under 100 5v5 minutes.

Why do I bring this up in terms of discussing the fourth line as an energy line? Well, you regularly put out the fourth line to start in the defensive zone if you want to save the top lines to have more offensive zone time. Give the fourth line the tough zone start, hope that they can weather the storm and get the puck up ice, and then get in the scorers who can put the puck in the net. This has been what Hayden, Rooney, and whoever they have been playing with has been tasked to do this entire season. Very few forwards in the entire NHL have been given as tough zone starts this year as the Devils who have had consistent fourth line minutes. The New Jersey coaching staff loves to throw their fourth line out there in the defensive zone, and they expect that the line will play good defense and transition the puck forward.

Has this been effective? Well, getting the puck up ice on a quality, consistent basis would imply that the Devils would have better possession numbers than they currently do. The team, however, consistently has fewer shot attempts than their opponents, which implies that the other team is in the offensive zone for longer periods of time. But then again, if you are often putting out your least talented line in the defensive zone and regularly expecting success, that would not seem like the most logical expectation. Yes you have to play them at some point, you cannot throw out the top line for 40 minutes a game, but if you consistently play the fourth line on defensive zone starts, you have to expect that over the course of a season, there will be times where the opponent gets extended zone time, with numerous shot attempts. And this, given NJ’s Corsi, apparently happens. Also, check out John’s article from yesterday about how bad John Hayden has been. Starting 3 of four shifts in the defensive zone doesn’t help him any, but considering how not good he has been, it’s also a clear detriment to the team.

Given the talent on offense after the selloff, there aren’t many options for the Devils. But it is just an interesting look-in at how the coaching staff deploys the fourth line, and what they are expected to do on this team. As you watch the game today, and you see the Devils get defensive zone starts, see who Nasreddine is throwing out there for most of those faceoffs. Don’t be surprised to see the fourth line.